Issue 12.1: February/March 2009

Shooting The Curl

story by Catharine Lo
portrait by Dana Edmunds

Two years ago, Clark Little’s wife, Sandy, wanted to buy a picture to fill the empty wall space above their bed. Something that honors the life they’re building together … a photo of a wave would be fitting, she thought.

“You know, honey, I could do that for you,” Little told his wife. After all, as a former pro surfer—locally famous as the daredevil waterman who charges the shorebreak at Waimea Bay—he could swim into the thundering waves of O‘ahu’s North Shore with the best of them.

Armed with a garden-variety digital camera and a simple waterproof housing he bought on, Little dived boldly into the monster winter surf to capture the drama of a breaking wave. He survived and captured images of breathtaking intensity: waves exploding with raw, turbulent energy but also delicately and sublimely beautiful. He e-mailed his favorites to his extended family; they all felt that Clark had stumbled upon his inner artist.

Encouraged, Little invested in “a real camera”—a Nikon D200. Together with the housing and a fisheye lens, it was a $4,000 investment. Clark’s friend, professional water photographer Brian Bielmann, taught him the basics. And, with the enthusiasm of a kid on the first day of summer vacation, Little paddled out into what would become his dream career.

At the peak of a winter swell, the shorebreak at Waimea Bay and Ke Iki Beach—Little’s favorite locations—rises to heights of 20 feet. The waves grind toward shore in long walls, lunge violently and then heave onto the sand in a furious explosion of whitewater. On the beach signs warn, “Dangerous Shore Break: Can cause serious injuries or drowning.” If that language isn’t alarming enough, there’s a hapless stick figure flailing upside down beneath the lip of a breaking wave. Even if you can’t read English, you know you don’t want to be that guy.

But Little does want to be that guy. He’s one of the few who do attempt to ride the shorebreak—a thrill that lasts a few seconds before the wave shuts down and pile-drives the surfer into the sand. For him the punishment is worth the momentary bliss of finding himself suspended in the liquid tunnel that forms just before the wave crashes. A journey into the barrel, surfers report, transcends time and space. Little embraces every opportunity to get tubed—and subsequently pounded. He takes his camera into a place where most humans—even many surf photographers—fear to tread, and he gives his audience a glimpse of what being inside that elusive slot is all about.

“The shorebreak is my comfort zone. I absolutely love it,” he proclaims. “My passion is in big, empty barrels. … I never stop looking for a massive cave. What an adrenaline rush.”

But what of the inevitable beating?

“Well, one time a huge Waimea shorebreak wave slammed me very hard—hard enough to rip my nylon leash, which was attached to my hand, in half. My camera went flying into the white-wash,” he recalls. “When I came up for air, I couldn’t find my camera for several minutes. I was tired and bummed. Then, near the beach I found it, thank goodness!”

Getting thumped into the sand, however, is less brutal than being hurled onto jagged coral, he insists, referring to the surfers at Pipeline who drop into 20-foot-plus waves breaking on sharp fingers of reef. The only surfer Little has photographed—the only surfer insane enough to ride the shorebreak—is Flynn Novak, a Pipeline specialist who also doesn’t mind taking a beating. He and Little would hit the beach at sunrise and spend the morning getting pummeled by waves, screaming and laughing like kids on a merry-go-round, feeding off each other’s “stoke.” Little’s talent as a surf photographer was validated when one of his shots of Novak made the cover of Heavywater magazine.

Little wants to showcase the wave as a subject rather than a setting. His images expose elements that aren’t visible when you simply look out to sea: the backwash caught in a playful do-si-do as it retreats from shore; the lip splaying into a fragile blown-glass fin; a transparent curtain that mirrors the palm-fringed shore.

One of his most popular images is called Sand Monster. It features a ferocious, 6-foot column of sand taken hostage by a glassy, 9-foot wave. Little pressed the shutter just as the turquoise wave’s lip curled. An instant later he was enveloped in a tornado of sand.

“It’s all about the timing,” he says. “You never know if you’re going to get something like that again. But there’s always a different wave and there are always different conditions, and that’s what makes it so fun. No image is the same.”

When the conditions are prime—sunny days and big, glassy, clean waves—he typically shoots three separate sessions that last about two hours apiece.

“If it’s perfect, I’ll stay out for six hours … from sunrise to 1:30. My wife teases me because I come out purple,” he says.

Little’s success comes from knowing exactly where to position the camera and anticipating what the water will do. His keen understanding of wave behavior is derived from a lifetime of surfing and living on the North Shore, where waves are so integral to life that people give directions by naming surf breaks rather than streets.

The now 39-year-old father of two moved to O‘ahu from Northern California as a boy when his father, Jim Little, took a job teaching photography and art at Punahou School. Clark and his older brother, Brock, attended Punahou, and for years endured the two-and-a-half-hour bus ride each way from their North Shore home. Tired of the commute, Clark transferred to Waialua High School, where he graduated in 1987.

Clark and Brock immersed themselves (literally) in the North Shore’s surf culture; both dabbled in professional surfing before moving on to more secure careers. (Brock, a renowned big-wave surfer, is now a stunt coordinator for various Hollywood projects.) Clark landed a job at Wahiawa Botanical Garden when he was 22, and until less than a year ago, he tended 27 acres of rare and endangered plants. In addition, he raised and sold plumerias, a business he learned from his father, who runs a thriving plumeria nursery.

The plumeria business helped buy Clark’s house and much of his camera gear, he says. While he still relies on plumerias as a backup source of income, Clark is now, to his great astonishment, a full-time photographer.

“Holy mackerel, I would have never thought in my wildest dreams this is where I would be,” Little says, shaking his head in disbelief at the stacks of prints he has signed. He is about to make his debut at the Wyland Gallery, which has agreed to show an exclusive series of prints. His work is displayed at Muumuu Heaven in Kailua, Cafe Haleiwa, Lei Leis and Starbucks. It has also made its way into the pages of Surfer, Surfing Life Australia, Surfing World Japan and numerous other surf magazines.

Always keeping an eye out for “anything new and different”—he’s even photographed rats (yes, rats—see the story on the last page of this issue) surfing ankle-high shorebreak—Little has recently focused on the “trippy” appeal of backwash. He follows a diffusing wave as it returns to sea and chronicles its spectacular collision with an incoming wave.

Is there any other image Clark is keen to capture? His friend and nine-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater challenged him to get a shot of a turtle half in and half out of a breaking wave.

“I will get [that shot] one day. Slater will see … soon enough!” In the meantime it’s a quest he doesn’t mind pursuing one bit.

“Going in the water is all pleasure,” he says. “The ocean is my second home. Besides with my family, there’s no place I’d rather be.” HH